Silly Little Show-Biz Book Club is Nathan Rabin’s ongoing exploration of books involving show business, with a special emphasis on the very bad and the very sleazy.
The cover of William Berle and ghostwriter Brad Lewis’ gossipy tell-all My Father, Uncle Miltie shows its subject, Milton Berle, in his element. A look of demented joy animates his eyes. He’s smiling an almost freakishly huge, Las Vegas-headliner smile. His jet-black hair has been carefully moussed into order. He wears the requisite evening wear that was his stage costume for decades, complete with a black bow tie.
It’s Mr. Television in an iconic pose, yet there’s something deeply disconcerting and creepy about the whole affair, something subtly nightmare-inducing. The smile is less a real smile than a Joker smile, deranged and phony. It’s the smile of someone who forces himself to be the life of the party even when he’s feeling dead inside. Especially when he’s feeling dead inside. The idea is to capture the legendary clown in a typically mischievous moment, but instead the cover image suggests a crude, gothic burlesque of genuine joy, a hollow simulacrum of the real thing.
This cover photo captures the strange duality at the core of Berle’s life and career. Berle was once one of the biggest stars in the world, a television pioneer who dominated the medium’s early years with his broad smile and vaudevillian shtick. He was every starry-eyed child’s “Uncle Miltie,” a familiar face to just about everyone in the country at his height.
Yet Berle is remembered today less for his jokes, or his comedy, than he is for both being a big dick and having a big dick. Berle was notorious for being a joke thief, an attention hog, a scene stealer, and a petty tyrant who took it upon himself to do things like try to “teach” the cast of Saturday Night Live about live television, resulting in one of the most notorious and disastrous episodes in the show’s history.
Berle’s enormous genitalia is infamous enough that for a tell-all about him to ignore it, even if written by a son, would be an egregious oversight. So Milton’s adopted son William goes overboard talking his father’s penis and legendary sexual adventures in nauseating, nauseatingly fascinating detail.
But before My Father, Uncle Miltie gets really gross and also interesting, it starts off by practically daring people to stop reading. The book at least opens on a compelling note. The author’s beloved adopted mother Ruth has just died and Berle, as usual, was somewhere else when something important was happening. Ever the control freak, Berle insisted that his son read remarks he and a collaborator prepared for him, and William takes a long, hard look at his father on one of the saddest days of both of their lives, and realizes that, on a fundamental level, he does not really know his father at all.
This is compelling and heartbreaking and not at all surprising given Berle’s reputation and personality. It’s also a little alarming from a literary standpoint because a man who concedes up front that he doesn’t really know his father is not necessarily in a great place to write a tell-all about the person they realize they don’t know.
Sure enough, the next 130 pages are disappointingly dull, filled with details that do nothing but pad out the word count. William felt his father was too self-absorbed and distant to be a present and involved father, but after reading the book, I was actually surprised that Berle was as involved as he was. William complains that his dad did not teach him how to be stylish, or how to talk to girls. But he does point out that his father procured him a hooker to lose his virginity to, and once proposed sharing the same groupie, an offer his son refused.
Yet considering Berle’s advanced age and famous arrogance, I was surprised that he was a presence in his son’s life on any level. He showed his son how to shave and involved him in his stage act as well as his acting career and introduced him to legendary baseball players like Sandy Koufax. William bitterly notes that his father’s generosity was on his dad’s terms, and in his arenas, like show-business and comedy, but it’s interesting that Berle even made an effort in the first place. He was also exceedingly generous in financially supporting William long after he became an adult.
About 140 pages in, William’s deeply boring story becomes unexpectedly fascinating. He stops being the cute little blond boy who never got over his dad not playing catch with him in the front yard and becomes a bitter middle-aged man with a long list of zealously held grudges.
My Father, Uncle Miltie grows enjoyably mean, even cruel. William doesn’t just talk extensively about his father’s enormous penis and all the places it’s been, he also somehow thinks readers need to know about his sex life as well. So while he points out more than once that he does not have a legendarily impressive, foot-long penis like his dad, he’s had his share of nights when he had sex with three or four different women. He also writes that he’s enjoyed the occasional visit to sex clubs, in part because he can have sex with women there without having to play the “I’m Milton Berle’s son, and he didn’t hug me enough growing up” card.
When Berle is doing relatively well in the ’60s and making good money, William writes of him with a certain affection and respect to undercut the bitterness and resentment. After Berle’s career nose-dives and his beloved wife Ruth dies, however, there is a sharp change in tone as William takes every opportunity to deliver a series of swift kicks to his father’s skull.
William and his ghost-writer are equal parts cruel and funny describing the gothic rituals of Berle as an aged entertainer, paying particular attention to the way he’d be dolled up before he came onstage, his sagging features buried under layer upon layer of pancake makeup and rouge. They’re equally unsparing describing the craziness and obsessiveness of Berle’s Vegas routine.
From that point forward, My Father, Uncle Miltie is vicious and cutting in its depiction of Milton Berle as a pathetic has-been too gullible and oblivious to realize that he’s surrounded by a world of flunkies, phonies, parasites, con artists, and flat-out criminals. He’s a Friars Club fossil who congregates with other fossils and relics of the vaudeville age, to laugh at the same hoary gags they’ve been laughing at for decades.
My Father, Uncle Miltie chronicles—with palpable disdain and no small amount of sadistic glee—such failed attempts to bring its subject back to a public that had long forgotten him as a plan to reach out to a whole new audience by putting Milton Berle’s Private Joke File on floppy discs. Other doomed plans to bring Milton back included a Milton Berle film festival that goes terribly awry, a doomed attempt to create a smash-hit Hanukkah song, and an ambitious scheme to launch a “living legends of comedy” project with George Burns and Bob Hope that failed when the people involved were understandably unable to make the project more appealing to investors.
My Father, Uncle Miltie is supposed to make Milton Berle look bad. Considering his reputation, that shouldn’t be too difficult. Instead, My Father, Uncle Miltie humanized Berle like nothing else has before. I came away from it with a new respect for Uncle Miltie. The same cannot be said of his son, who comes off as a vicious opportunist who rages against people for exploiting his father without realizing that he’s doing the exact same thing.
Late in the book, we learn that Berle had a number of illegitimate children, something he kept from his adopted children until late in life. Then again, William also has an illegitimate child, and we learn nothing about this child other than that his mother was exactly the kind of “money-grubbing schemer” that surrounded the Berles for decades. Perhaps sometime in the future, this barely acknowledged progeny can write his own tell-all about what a terrible, absent father William was.
My Father, Uncle Miltie is sleazy, shameless, and clearly the product of a show-business parasite and bottom-feeder with a pronounced and deeply hypocritical distaste for his bottom-feeding peers at the bottom of the show-business ladder. Regretfully, it’s not quite entertainingly unforgivable enough to be worth reading.